Financial Times

Firm stand gives Chen impetus in propaganda battle with China

Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: 01 March 2006

When Chen Shui-bian signed the documents scrapping Taiwan's National Unification Council yesterday, the image was broadcast islandwide and the Taiwanese public saw their president give a satisfied smile for the first time in months.

The move to get rid of a policy body set up to work for unification with mainland China, which has never had more than token significance, has brought Mr Chen back to centre-stage not only in Taiwan domestic politics but also in cross-Strait relations.

Mr Chen's comeback has already cast doubt on a widespread expectation that a more China-friendly administration would replace him in 2008.

"He was declared a lame duck far too early," says Joseph Wu, Taiwan's top China policy official.

Since Mr Chen's re-election in 2004, Beijing has dropped its harsh rhetoric on Taiwan, a policy that drove the country's voters into the arms of pro-independence politicians, and tried instead to sideline Mr Chen.

China has increasingly gained the upper hand in the cross-Strait propaganda battle. Over the past year, Beijing has courted Taiwanese opposition leaders and promised beneficial measures such as scrapping import tariffs on Taiwanese fruit.

When Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive party suffered a severe electoral defeat in December's municipal polls, he decided the trend had to be stopped.

"There seemed to be a momentum weakening the DPP and weakening Taiwan's sovereignty," says a close aide to Mr Chen.

Taipei believes that showing restraint in its dealings with China has worked to its disadvantage. When China enshrined its threat of military force against the island in an "anti-secession law" last March, Taipei heeded US advice and avoided taking any counter-measures that would have ratcheted up tensions.

"But what did the US give us in return? They called on China to start dealing with Taiwan's elected government but don't seem prepared to do anything about Beijing all but ignoring these appeals," says an adviser to Mr Chen.

Mr Chen's loss of domestic political support played at least as important a role in driving him towards a harder stance.

Following the DPP's December electoral defeat, many observers thought Ma Ying-jeou, the popular Taipei mayor and chairman of the opposition Kuomintang, would be Taiwan's next president and that he would embark on a more pragmatic course in cross-Strait affairs.

"The combination of the notion that Taiwan public opinion is tilting in favour of China and that Ma was becoming unstoppable made it necessary for the president to rebalance things," says his aide. So far, Mr Chen seems to have been successful. US reaction to his move has been surprisingly mild, with Washington praising him for repeating earlier pledges not to move towards formal independence - which he has not done.

"If China comes to the conclusion that the US and Taiwan are trying to double-cross Beijing, the consequences could be severe," says George Tsai, a veteran cross-Strait scholar at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

However, analysts believe Washington's cautious line was more likely due to the belief that Mr Chen needs to be handled with care in his last two years in office, and that pushing him into a corner could turn him into a loose cannon.

In the short term, Mr Chen's move will unleash a series of domestic political struggles. First, the KMT hopes to muster enough public support to impeach the president - a plan that is very unlikely to succeed given the high approval thresholds such a motion requires. But demonstrations in favour of impeachment and counter-marches in support of the president will keep the debate at the top of the agenda.

The government is also certain to repeat its stance on some sensitive occasions coming up this month, such as the 10th anniversary of Chinese missile strikes in the sea off Taiwan and the first anniversary of the anti-secession law.

But sources close to Mr Chen say that regaining political strength would also give him the confidence to go forward with the long-awaited expansion of economic exchanges with China.

"You will see a loosening in some areas of cross-Strait policy over the next few months," says Lai I-chung, head of the DPP's China Affairs Department. Mr Lai says the DPP might relax its stance on issues such as Taipei's current restriction on listed companies investing more than 40 per cent of their net asset value in China.

The Taiwanese government also has hopes that cautious behind-the-scenes talks on allowing large numbers of Chinese tourists to visit the island and on launching regular non-stop passenger and cargo charter flights will finally produce results this year.